The Simpsons, Season Three, Episode Seventeen, “Homer At The Bat”

Way back in season one, I often complained that episode felt less like coherent stories and more like loose riffing; episodes like “Moaning Lisa” were great for unifying the riffing under a single, compelling theme, but more often than not it was something like “Homer’s Odyssey”, noodling from one idea to the next. Since then, the show has slowly learned how to deliver a fast farcical plot, which makes this return to riffing all the more surprising, but since then the show has developed such a strong vision of both who these characters all are and how this strange little world works that it becomes gut-busting.

The plot is extremely simple: the Nuclear Power Plant softball team has started up, and after Homer personally brings the team to greatness, Mr Burns makes a bet with the owner of the Shelbyville Power Plant over who will win the final, and Mr Burns cheats by bringing in a team of ringers. There’s a minor emotional aspect to the story in that Homer is initially proud of being the team powerhouse, is hurt by the ringers showing up, and is the one to save the day in the end, but this isn’t an episode with real emotional stakes; it’s an excuse for silly jokes.

Despite Homer being the ostensible protagonist, the MVP of the episode is Mr Burns. There are three aspects to the character: he’s rich, he’s old, and he’s indifferent to human suffering, and the writers can spin jokes out of both why he does something and how he does it – he’s old, so his initial ringers have naturally been dead for over a hundred years and he trains his team with medicine balls; he’s rich, so his ringers are easily recognisable professional athletes. It even goes one step further, having Burns initially dismiss a million dollar bet before realising he hadn’t been listening properly (“I’m sorry, my mind was elsewhere.”).

(I find myself thinking of Carter Petwershmidt on Family Guy, who is also old and rich, but a good 75% of his jokes have become him suddenly and with no explanation taking on the personality of a thirteen-year-old boy; his sense of character isn’t as set as Burns, and the payoff is much weaker)

Once the nine ringers come into the story, they pretty much take the whole thing over; it’s genuinely impressive how the they take nine guest stars all famous for doing the same thing and build nine different jokes and stories out of them without it feeling overwhelming. First, recruiting the men, then giving them setup for their downfall, then paying off the downfall – it should be repetitive (especially when it becomes obvious that we’re about to see eight different calamities), but the sheer imagination on display keeps it working.

(Mike Scioscia has the best story, introduced being genuinely enthused about working in nuclear power only to fall sick due to radiation poisoning, but Darryl Strawberry’s inexplicable sucking up to Mr Burns is the funniest to me)

The story concludes acceptably; Homer is sitting miserably on the bench only for Burns to outsmart himself by pulling out Darryl Strawberry for Homer, due to a right-handed advantage, and Homer wins the game not due to a home run but because he gets hit in the head, and we go out to a montage with a parody of “Talkin’ Baseball”. It’s another perfect moment of Simpsons-style undercut sincerity.

Chalkboard Gag: I will not aim for the head.
Couch Gag: The family all run in, only to bang their heads together and fall unconscious, except for Maggie.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Jim Reardon, and the episode has Swartzwelder’s fingerprints all over it. The riff-heavy nature of the plotting combined with the baseball theme means we get some golden physical comedy, mainly but not entirely centered around Burns, from his calls to Homer (which also has a great Burns line, “Not once, not twice, but thrice”) to the sheer basic comedy of seeing him get hit by a high-speed ball. The crew were still stressed by caricaturing real people, but it really paid off with jokes like Griffey’s grotesquely swollen jaw.

None of the players delivers what could be called a “good” or “adequate” performance, but they are all weirdly endearing in their sincerity, especially Ozzie Smith as a Springfield tourist. Harry Shearer plays off them wonderfully, though.

The title is a reference to “Casey At The Bat”. Most of the episode parodies The Natural, especially the opening act. One shot parodies The Pride Of The Yankees. Carl tries batting with a piano leg, a reference to Norm Cash doing the same thing against Nolan Ryan.

First Appearances: N/A
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